Home August 2023 Temple Honored for Work With Special-Needs Students

Temple Honored for Work With Special-Needs Students

Ray Fantel sits at the specially built desk Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple had built for him to celebrate his bar mitzvah. With him are Rabbi Philip Bazeley, right; and from left, father, Matt; older brother Ethan; mother, Marcy and Cantor Mark Stanton.
Photo courtesy of Fantel Family

Award Bestowed for Being “What Every Synagogue Community Should be”

    On his first day as an assistant rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick 50 years ago. Rabbi Bennett Miller found a letter from a congregant waiting for him on his desk.
    That note welcomed him and thanked the synagogue for the excellent religious education provided to his two oldest sons. However, the distraught father accused the temple of depriving his disabled youngest son of the same opportunity.
    Miller asked the man to come in and made him a promise: “If you make a commitment to me to bring me your son, I will make a commitment to you to do whatever I can to provide him with a Jewish education.”
    The synagogue honored his vow to educate that child and all other children, whether they be neurodiverse, learning or physically disabled. They remodeled classrooms, making the bimah handicapped-accessible, pioneering inclusivity, training teens to assist with classes and individualizing curriculums and bar and bat mitzvahs.  
     In fact, that special needs boy, after receiving a religious education at the temple, as a young adult moved to a group home in south Jersey. But every Friday just before the start of the holiday, he continued to call Miller to wish him a Shabbat shalom until his death from COVID-19 during the pandemic.
    Miller retired as senior rabbi in 2018 after 44 years and now serves as rabbi emeritus. His successor, Rabbi Philip Bazeley, who came to the temple as assistant rabbi in 2012, is now its senior rabbi.
    “It is an important part of the fabric of our synagogue,” Bazeley said of the disability education program. “We believe everybody ought to have access to our Jewish community, and we will do whatever needs to be done to do so.”
    That commitment so impressed the nonprofit New York organization Matan, it honored the rabbis and synagogue with its Trailblazer Award at its annual dinner this past spring in Manhattan. The organization guides, trains and supports Jewish community leaders and educators to provide purposeful, enriching and inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities and their families.
    “They are an example of what every synagogue community should be,” said Matan Executive Director Dori Frumin Kirshner.
    Temple educator Laura Leibowitz described the congregation, which has been in New Brunswick since 1859, as being “very open, accepting and kind.”
    “Whatever the typical day is for the neurotypical third grader, 10th grader, 11th grader, that is what the scheduled day looks like for a student who needs support,” she said.
    Much of that support is provided by high-school age madrichim, or classroom assistants. The temple also pairs with the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services for staff training.
    Miller said as children with different special needs came to the synagogue, he would often come before the board asking for funding to accommodate those needs.
    “Never once did they say, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’” he said, adding that there are no longer any financial issues since the grandparents of a special-needs student who went through the program made a generous endowment to ensure it continues in perpetuity.  
    Julian Senick Kaimann is typical of the temple’s creativity. Because he wasn’t able to carry the Torah for his bar mitzvah because of physical limitations, the synagogue had a special cart built so he could perform hakafot with the Torah by pushing it.
   “I feel like it was a real gift that they cared enough to support me and future generations,” he said. “This synagogue has really allowed me to blossom and that’s why I call it my second home.”       
    Congregant Dina Karmazin, a former Matan board member and mother of Hunter, who has autism, said she believed there was a great benefit to integrating special needs children into the whole community, showing them that “just because somebody is different doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
    Karmazin said as Hunter approached his bar mitzvah, it became clear he could not do the traditional service, so the temple prepared an individualized service for him.
     “Because we were injecting so much of Hunter into the prayer book, it [made] these prayers, which at times feel like rote, just come alive in brand new ways,” said Bazeley. ”So now each and every [bar] mitzvah has a prayer experience that fits them.” 
    For Marcy and Matt Fantel, watching their son, Ray, become a bar mitzvah was something they never thought they’d see. Ray, now 14, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal form of muscular dystrophy, at 4 months but has shattered all longevity expectations.
    His parents have been determined to give him as normal a life as possible but when it came time to enroll in religious school, Marcy said they didn’t know what to expect.
    “It was nothing short of amazing,” she said. “They were always very accommodating and welcoming.”
    Even before the pandemic, Ray would often stay home from both public and religious school during cold and flu season because of his weakened immune system. Long before Zoom became a thing, the school would include Ray in classes using FaceTime. While in school he had an “amazing” midrashim named Jack who took him from class to class.
    Marcy became nervous as Ray’s November 2021 bar mitzvah approached. Because Ray uses a wheelchair, Bazeley had a special table built for him which was placed on the floor so that everyone could see Ray.
    “We didn’t know how verbal he would be because he has a degenerative disease, but Rabbi Bazeley said we will do whatever Ray tells us to do,” she said. “But then I went to Hunter’s bar mitzvah, and I knew it would all work out. What I saw was an amazing example of flexibility to make it work.”
    It was decided that a Sephardic Torah, which stands upright instead of being laid flat to read, would be more suitable for Ray. Although the temple didn’t have one, it found such a Torah at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, which loaned it to the temple.   
    Ray is now taking classes at the Hebrew high school and hopes to go with other teens to Washington, D.C., later this year to lobby legislators through a program of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
    “When people extend their hands to us in kindness as friends, we don’t take it lightly,” Marcy said. “But that’s what Anshe Emeth has done for us. They have supported us and made us feel welcome. They are an amazing community. I wish the world was more like Anshe Emeth.”  

DEBRA RUBIN has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly  daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.


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